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Art Unchained: What’s It Like to be Drawn by Robots?


Meet 5RNP, five robots created and programmed by French artist Patrick Tresset for the live media art installation, Human Study #1, 5RNP, as part of Art Unchained. Each with a robotic arm, an obsolete digital camera and a “brain” – a laptop hidden in a school desk – these robots were devised to create sketches of human sitters in distinctive artistic styles. What’s it like to model for them? We speak to three sitters who share their surreal experiences, as well as Art Unchained Creative Consultant Tanya Bennett to find out what went on behind the scenes in this complex and groundbreaking installation.

Anson Chan, actor
“As an actor, I focus more on the interactions with others, so I was curious to see how I’d be able to interact with the ‘artists’. Even though I was told to hold still, I tried to sneak in some micromovements with my body to see whether the robots could capture them. (Don’t tell the staff!) 

The robots behaved just like real artists. They would look up and study you, and then return to the drawing. One of the robots was observing me for almost five minutes before it started drawing; I actually wondered whether there was a glitch! From the final drawings, I could see that the tiny movements I made didn’t really translate on paper. That got me thinking: now that our lives have become more reliant on technology, art is becoming a more humanised medium. This experience goes to show that robots can’t fully replace humans in the role of an artist.”
Cheng Pui-ka, multimedia artist and performer
“Art is something that I live and breathe every day so I was really looking forward to seeing how the robots would portray me. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but I relaxed as the robots started to draw. They reminded me of real artists because they would pause and ‘think’ before their next stroke. The robots all had their distinct styles, and the five final drawings were all incredible in their own ways. 

I was surprised to find out from the staff that the robots are reprogrammed and updated on a daily basis. This time, the artist had to change their settings so they could recognise and draw people wearing face masks. The whole experience showed how deep the connection between art and technology is, and that professionals in both disciplines are improving and learning new things every day.”
Nelson Pang, musician and violin teacher
“I was excited about this as I’d never had any experience as a sitter, let alone being drawn by robots! Just before we started, I got nervous about finding a posture that I could hold for 30 minutes. I tried my best not to move even a hair to allow the robots’ cameras to capture me as best as they could.

There were five robots in the room, and each drew from different angles, so they all had different interpretations of me. But there’s still something robotic about their drawings – each stroke seemed to have the exact same thickness. I was impressed by Patrick Tresset’s idea of translating ones and zeroes into actual artwork. In fact, I think the entire experience is a form of art in itself. I look forward to seeing more collaborations between technology and art in the future.”

Tanya Bennett, artist and creative consultant of Art Unchained
“I’m in a unique position of having experienced Human Study #1, 5RNP from various perspectives: as a viewer, sitter, co-director and backstage staff. As a sitter, I found it both familiar and foreign. Having been both a subject and a sketcher at life drawing classes, I could recognise movement in the robots that I too would make when observing a subject. And yet, I had never experienced anything like this, with robotic mechanisms capturing my essence.

The entire session was a theatrical event, and a profoundly human experience. We had recruited sitters, gallery staff and with the artist and the curator Lisa Botos choreographed the whole sequence with the online viewer in mind. The performance grew organically throughout the exhibition period, with small changes in camera angles, the soundscape and body language of the performers. Patrick always looks for a subtle dynamism to the pose of the sitter, who is actively engaged with the robots. The gallery staff then plays a vital role in guiding the sitter, hence bridging the gap between artist and sitter, and between technology and human interaction.”

Stay tuned to ArtisTree’s Facebook page for more upcoming creative programmes. 
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